Ever since waking up in the Core, discovering town, learning about the Grid, and eventually earning Olivia’s trust, Johnathan Davis always tried to be as transparent and honest as he could with any of the stories he tackled in the community.
From the articles he wrote about the main six, to the opinion pieces he had done on close-knit township lifestyles, it had always been about giving his honest thoughts and feelings on whatever subject he authored.
His return to town, however, started a habit of keeping secrets.
The crashed ship was airlifted from Willow Creek Farms in the dead of night and dropped off at the top of Mission Control. No one in town, save a few of the explorer team, had any idea that a foreign vehicle was now resting in their neighborhood.
The pilot of the craft, still unconscious, rode into town in the camper, along with Caleb, John, and Ruby. Caleb had the pilot moved to a spare room next to his office, which the doctor sometimes used as a patient room.
Most importantly of all, John and Ruby were sworn to secrecy, along with anyone else that had been a part of the dealings since the incident, including Katherine Willow. Rayland had tried his best to explain all the reasons this was a good call, but John still didn’t feel comfortable keeping this information hidden from the citizens.
He skulked about for a few days, but soon discovered it was quite easy to ignore the sleeping pilot and crashed ship. Out of sight and out of mind. Not to mention that some upstart engineer named Elsie Lamaar had made big waves at Mission Control while he was gone, and now everyone was talking about taking control of the world ship.
John ignored it for a while, avoiding his life as a writer and simply living as a citizen. He liked it well enough. It was boring, but there was something to be appreciated about not knowing all of the things happening behind the curtain. He worked on normal hobbies… like photography.
Unfortunately, his job with Olivia is what supplied him with the currency he needed to enjoy puffy pastries and delicious chicken meat, so once he had some time and distance from all of the chaotic events, he was ready to dive back in.
His return to Mission Control couldn’t have been more poignant.
The final helicopter crew was just reporting their findings on the lower levels.
No debris. No wreckage.
Explorer One had truly vanished.
John, figuring this would make up the meat of his next newsletter, wrote down a few of their statements to use as quotations. As they left the scene, Olivia stood to take their place. She looked nervous, which was rare to see, and John knew what she was about to say.
“That report concludes our search for Explorer One,” she announced. “We’ve covered every inch of the lower levels. Our teams have recovered the pieces that were initially found by John and Ruby. I wanted to thank you all, each and every individual that pours so much heart into what we do here. The loss of Explorer One… the loss of Flynn and David… it will take time for those wounds to heal, but they gave their all knowing the risks. They too understood that if we hope to have a future here, we must understand our world.”
There were a few murmurs of agreement from the crowd, a few farewells cast out by some of the engineers, and then the room settled back down to the normal buzz that it had long held. A few voices of people speaking, but mostly lots of typing and clicking at the various stations. For a brief moment, John relaxed, thinking he could put this all behind him.
“So, wait,” Ruby said as she stood and faced Olivia. “That’s it?”
“For now,” Olivia replied, her voice calm and measured. “In the weeks ahead, we will continue to focus on completing our second launch vehicle, Explorer Two.”
“They could be out there,” Ruby said, her voice growing tense. “They could be alive.”
John had expected this. While they had been at the farm Ruby and some of the other engineers had determined that, under the right conditions, Explorer One could have made it to the upper levels and landed there.
They would be out of range of communication, with limited supplies, and no way home. Olivia looked at Ruby and frowned, a sad frown, like she felt pity. “You refer to your theory that they made it to the upper levels?”
“Yes,” Ruby confirmed.
“Assuming that is true, how do you suggest we help them? Without Explorer Two, we have no vehicle that can reach them. They have no tools to communicate with us. There is nothing we can do, even if they are alive up there.”
Hearing Olivia say what they all already knew still felt like a hammer crashing down on hopeful thoughts. The team had already talked about the options and everyone knew Explorer Two was their best shot. The new vehicle would be nearly twice the size of Explorer One and was meant to carry multiple passengers to and from the Upper Levels. If they had it available, they could use it to mount a rescue mission to find Flynn and David, but the ship wasn’t ready. It wouldn’t be ready any time soon, and with all the developments since the incident occurred, it was questionable if they ever would finish it.
Unless there was another option.
“What about the crashed ship?” John asked aloud. He assumed all of the explorers in Mission Control knew what he was referencing.
If looks could kill, Olivia’s glare might have done so.
It was Ruby that answered him. “No, we haven’t found a way to power it, yet. The system currently installed runs on a power crystal of some kind. It’s not like anything we have, and the crystal appears to have lost its charge. There’s a crack in it that we think allowed the energy to escape after the crash.”
“Not to mention,” Olivia added, “we don’t know that it isn’t rigged with anti-theft controls, which could harm us if we tried to activate it. I’m afraid our options have dictated the only course of action for our team. We focus on Explorer Two. We use it to reach the upper levels and, once we have eyes up there, we can see about scouting for survivors.”
Ruby looked helpless. She lowered her gaze and returned to her seat.
“I know the incident has been hard on everyone,” Olivia added, speaking mostly to Ruby, but taking the time to make eye contact with a few others. “This is a heavy loss for us all, not just the explorer team, but the citizens and the town. In time, I promise you, we will find closure on everything that has happened here.”
“We understand,” Ruby said, looking defeated.
“Some of you do,” Olivia replied. “Some of you don’t, and that’s understandable. In time, I hope you all do.”
Ruby nodded slowly and then started up the stairs to the roof. “I’m going to go look at the wreckage again. We might as well see if we can learn anything from it.”
Olivia acknowledged. “I have a meeting with Elsie Lamarr about her progress with the data Explorer One retrieved during its first mission. I’ll sync up with you all later.”
As Olivia and the other engineers broke up from their meeting, John considered leaving Ruby to her own devices, but deep down he knew she had a rebellious spirit. Olivia had said this was over, and Ruby was far from agreeing to that. Whatever she was up to on the roof, he had to check in.
On the bottom floor of the Cinema, what had once been a ticket counter now served as an area where Olivia could meet up with various employees for meetings or updates about the various projects that were running in the Grid or even here in town.
Elsie Lamarr was waiting patiently when Olivia came downstairs. She greeted Olivia, formally, then stood there, clearly waiting for the woman to speak her mind.
“Thanks for meeting with me,” Olivia started. “I’ve been meaning to meet with you ever since your… announcement.”
“I might have gotten a little overexcited,” Elsie said with a smile, “but everything I said stands true. We’re actually cracking the code to the world ship’s computers.”
“Remarkable. I’m impressed with your work, Elsie. I know your efforts were a bit sidelined with all that has happened recently, but I wanted you to tell you that I greatly appreciate the work you’re doing. If we’re able to communicate with the ship’s systems, we can finally start to understand what exists beyond its walls.”
Hearing those words melted the resentment that had been growing in Elsie’s heart. All she ever wanted was recognition and some level of appreciation. She wanted everyone to know that she was important… that she mattered.
“I’m happy to serve,” she said, suddenly worried she might cry.
“I want you to consider something,” Olivia added. “The Grid is the storehouse of the ship’s server towers. If you want to continue this project, I was going to see if you would want to lead a team from there, so that you can have a greater impact.”
There it was. Elsie’s anger returned hot and bright. Here she sat, ready to believe that Olivia cared about her or her work. No, now it was clear. Olivia was attempting to ship her off, far away from town, so that she couldn’t rise up in prominence.
She was about to outright reject the offer, but then she felt inspiration strike.
“That’s an amazing opportunity,” she said. “I assume you will visit often?”
“I will,” she answered, “though I’ll largely be focusing on Explorer Two. That’s why I want you to continue with your efforts. I can’t give it the attention it deserves, and your skill has proven invaluable so far.”
“Well then,” Elsie said. “Who am I to refuse?”
Yes, Elsie would accept the offer. She would go to the Grid. There, free from Olivia’s prying eyes, she could start to build up her reputation among the other explorers. She could network, get her hands dirty, and prove to everyone that she was the obvious choice for a leader.
It was an excellent plan.
Olivia was about to say something more, but her radio beeped several times and she quickly answered.
Elsie didn’t recognize the voice, but she heard him say, “He’s awake.”
With that, Olivia stood, excused herself, and rushed out of Mission Control.
Atop the Mission Control building, Ruby was lifting a large battery pack and heaving it over to the small yellow ship. She opened the ship’s octagonal cockpit and looked inside at the blank controls and wiring. Nothing seemed too broken in here. In fact, it seemed like the little ship may still be able to fly if they could power it.
Unfortunately, that’s where things got complicated. The ship didn’t use the same kind of power supply as anything they had here. Instead, it used some kind of power crystal to operate, and the power crystal that had been in the ship when it crashed had cracked, releasing all of the energy within.
So that was her mission. Remove the crystal, find a way to bridge the power connections, and use traditional battery packs to power the ship. If she could get it running, she could pilot the craft to the upper levels and find out what really happened to Flynn and David.
She nearly jumped out of her skin as she spun around to see John standing at the roof entry door. “You scared me,” she said, allowing herself to smile slightly.
“My apologies,” he said. “I just… well I wanted to see if I could help.”
“Yeah, I assume you’re planning to power this thing up and fly away?”
“Then I’m here to help. I know Olivia wants us to move on, but I want answers too.”
Ruby’s smile grew. “I’m thankful for the help. Unfortunately, unless you have a degree in electrical engineering I don’t think—”
Her radio beeped. One beep. That was Olivia.
She answered, curious to be getting a call so soon. “Go for Ruby.”
“I need you to come to Caleb’s office,” Olivia said firmly. “The pilot is awake.”